Saucy Secrets
Marinades are the key to grilling for optimal flavor, minimal worry

By Ying Chang Compestine
Photos by Rita Maas

When summertime rolls around and people start dusting off their barbecue tools, I often hear the question, "Can grilled food be healthy?" Already aware of how fatty traditional grilled meats tend to be, now people are also concerned by reports that charred food may harbor carcinogens. My answer is as welcome as a summer patio party: Not only can grilled food be healthy, it also can be fashioned into an exotic, low-effort dinner for even the most timid outdoor chef. The key is to shift the focus from old-fashioned barbecue fare such as marbled steaks, sweating hot dogs and greasy hamburgers, to fresh vegetables, fruit, seafood and tofu—ingredients that are not only delicious and healthy, but simple to cook.

One often-overlooked technique for safer and more flavorful grilling is marinating your food. Besides imparting the flavors of fresh herbs, spices, oils and vinegars, marinating also reduces the potential for carcinogenic elements to develop during cooking by increasing moisture content. It doesn't seem to matter how long you marinate your meat and fish; even a brief dip before cooking is beneficial. For best results, however, marinate food for at least 1 hour or overnight before grilling. In any case, avoid overcooking meat at hot temperatures because charring is where the potential cancer risk lies.

Once you're fired up, you'll find that grilling times will vary based on the type of grill you have, the freshness of the food, individual preference, even the weather (grilling takes longer on cold or windy days). Use the cooking times in these recipes as guides, but let your nose and eyes, not the clock, help determine when the food is done to your liking. As a bonus, the homemade marinades featured here contain far less fat and sodium than most commercial brands (they can even double as salad dressings or stir-fry condiments). So feast with a glad heart on a warm summer's eve—the heat is on and the eating's good.

Grilled Whole Trout with Almond Topping

Serves 4 / One secret to grilling fish is to use nonstick trays or nonstick fish holders. If you're like me, you will have to resist your urge to turn the fish. Wait until you're sure one side is done, then wait a bit more. The idea is to turn it just once.

4 fresh whole trout, 6 - 8 ounces each
1-1/2 cups Ginger-Garlic sauce, divided
2 green onions, white parts only, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon thinly shredded fresh ginger
2 tablespoons canola oil
1 medium red bell pepper, cut into 1x4-inch strips
1 medium yellow bell pepper, cut into 1x4-inch strips
1/4 cup toasted slivered almonds

1. Remove trout heads and scrape off the scales. Wash inside and out and pat dry with paper towels. Cut three diagonal slashes on each side of each trout. Stuff the slashes and inside the body with the green onion and ginger.

2. In a large shallow bowl, cover fish with 1 cup marinade. Marinate one hour or overnight, turning once.

3. Preheat the grill to medium-high. Drain fish and discard marinade. Pat dry the surface of the fish with paper towels. Brush fish skin with oil. Lightly oil a nonstick tray or fish holder. Grill trout until browned on the outside and meat is opaque, about 8 minutes on each side.

4. As the trout cooks, grill bell peppers in nonstick vegetable basket until tender and browned, 5-10 minutes. In a small saucepan, bring the remaining 1/2 cup sauce to a boil.

5. Transfer the fish and the peppers to a serving plate. Garnish with almonds. Pour sauce over the fish and bell peppers. Serve hot.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving: Calories: 434 calories Fat: 22g (3g saturated) % fat calories: 47 Cholesterol: 124mg Carbohydrate: 8g Protein: 48g

Shrimp and Fruit Kabobs

Serves 6 / I like to think that cooking is much like creating a work of art: You never know exactly what the final product will be like. In fact, I was delighted with the way this dish came together. Serve with noodles.

1 pound large raw shrimp, shelled and deveined
1-1/2 cups Apricot-Ginger glaze, divided
3 medium plums, pitted and cut in half
3 medium red Bartlett pears or 3 fresh peaches, pitted and cut into quarters
1 small pineapple, skinned and cut into 1-inch chunks

1. Combine shrimp and 1 cup glaze in a large bowl and toss to coat. Cover and refrigerate for at least 1 hour.

2. Remove shrimp from glaze. Alternately thread shrimp, plums, pears or peaches, and pineapple onto 6 15-inch skewers, leaving about 1/8-inch between each piece to allow even cooking.

3. Preheat grill to medium. Grill shrimp kabobs, turning occasionally, until shrimp turns opaque throughout and fruit is browned and tender, about 8-10 minutes. Baste with remaining glaze during the last 3 minutes of cooking.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving: Calories: 278 calories % fat calories: 14 Fat: 4g (1g saturated) Cholesterol: 115mg Carbohydrate: 45g Protein: 17g

Grape Leaf-wrapped Tofu With Green Tea

Serves 4 (2 per serving) / Did you know that frozen tofu will keep several months? Its color changes from white to tan, and it develops a firmer, spongier, chewier texture and a meatier flavor. This dish goes well with rice or as sandwich filling. If you don't have grape leaves, use 12x12-inch squares of aluminum foil.

16 ounces extra-firm tofu, frozen
1-1/2 cups Spicy Sesame sauce
2 stalks lemongrass
16 large grape leaves (fresh or from a jar)
Contents of 2 green tea bags

1. Thaw tofu in refrigerator. Drain. Rinse under cold water. Place tofu on a cutting board and press out excess water. Cut tofu into 8 pieces. In a container with lid, toss tofu with sauce to coat. Cover and marinate in the refrigerator for 3 hours or longer, turning once.

2. Cut off bottom 6 inches of tender, pale green part of lemongrass and mince. Discard remaining woody stalks. Prepare 8 12x12-inch squares of aluminum foil.

3. Bring 6 cups water to boil in a large pot. Blanch grape leaves until soft and bright green, 1-2 minutes. Drip-dry grape leaves. Line two leaves on a square of foil, overlapping slightly; place one piece of tofu in the middle and sprinkle with minced lemongrass and green tea. Tightly fold over the leaves' four sides. Wrap packet in foil. Repeat with remaining tofu and foil squares.

4. Oil a nonstick tray or grill rack. Preheat grill to medium. Grill wrapped tofu about 8 minutes each side or until heated through. Serve hot.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving: Calories: 249 calories % fat calories: 57 Fat: 16g (3g saturated) Cholesterol: 0mg Carbohydrate: 10g Protein: 16g

Honey-Basil Veggie Kabobs

Serves 6 / This dish goes well with grilled tofu and seafood, or it can be served as a side dish with pasta.

3 small green zucchini, cut diagonally into 1-inch chunks
3 small yellow squash, cut diagonally into 1-inch chunks
1/2 pound baby bella mushrooms
1 pound cherry tomatoes
1 cup Honey-Basil sauce

1. Wash vegetables and place in a large bowl. Add sauce; toss to coat. Cover and marinate in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour.

2. Onto 6 15-inch bamboo skewers, alternately thread zucchini, squash, mushrooms, and tomatoes. Leave about 1/8 inch between each piece to allow even cooking.

3. Preheat grill to medium. Grill kabobs, turning occasionally, until golden and tender, about 10-15 minutes.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving: Calories: 58 calories % fat calories: 24 Fat: 2g (0g saturated) Cholesterol: 0mg Carbohydrate: 9g Protein: 3g

Ginger-Garlic Sauce

Makes about 1-1/2 cups / This basic marinade is your jumping-off point for a host of variations. Be creative and have fun changing it to suit your taste. Any leftover sauce can be refrigerated in a tightly sealed container.

2 tablespoons fresh ginger, minced
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 green onion, white part only, minced
6 tablespoons low-sodium soy sauce
1/4 cup rice wine or sake
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1/4 cup rice vinegar
1-1/2 tablespoons sesame oil

1. Mix all ingredients in a small container. Use immediately, or store in the refrigerator for up to 1 week.

Spicy Sesame Sauce

1. To the Ginger-Garlic sauce, add 3 tablespoons black sesame seeds and 2 teaspoons minced fresh red chili pepper. Mix well.

Honey-Basil Sauce

1. Using the Ginger-Garlic sauce recipe, replace ginger and green onion with 1/4 cup fresh basil leaves, minced, and replace the sesame oil with 1 tablespoon flavored olive oil. Add 1/2 tablespoon honey and mix well.

Apricot-Ginger Glaze

1. Using the Ginger-Garlic sauce recipe, replace rice wine, lemon juice and rice vinegar with 3/4 cup apricot jam. Combine all ingredients in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for 2 minutes, whisking steadily.

Ying Chang Compestine is the author of several cookbooks, including Secrets From the Healthy Asian Kitchen (Avery/Penguin Putnam, 2002).